In 1832, a war broke out in Illinois between the American settlers and the Sauk (Sac) under the leadership of Black Hawk. The war lasted 15 weeks and resulted in the deaths of 70 non-Indians. While historians often call this Black Hawk’s War, it was not an invading force of Sauk warriors, but rather a migration of men, women, and children.
Background: The Sauk Indians
The Sauks call themselves asa-ki-waki which means “people of the outlet” in refence to the Saginaw River in Michigan. This is the area where they first gathered as a people. In the early seventeenth century they were driven from the area by the Iroquois.
Like many Indian tribes, the Sauk traditional economy was based on a combination of farming (corn, beans, squash) and hunting. During the warm months, they were farmers, living in permanent villages made up of many substantial pole-and-bark longhouses. During the cold months, they would leave the village and journey out onto the prairie to hunt buffalo and other game. Then, they would return to the village, plant crops, and tend to their fields.
The Sauk language belongs to the Central Algonquian language sub-family and is closely related to Miami, Illinois, Shawnee, Fox, Kickapoo, Menominee, Potawatomi, Ojibwa, Cree, Montegnais, and Naskapi.
Background: Black Hawk
Black Hawk (Black Sparrow Hawk) was born in the Sauk village of Saukenuk (present-day Rock Island, Illinois) in 1767. As a young warrior, he led war parties against the Osages and the Cherokees. At the time of the Black Hawk War, he was in his sixties. In his book Black Hawk: The Battle for the Heart of America, Kerry Trask writes:
“He was a man of small physical stature—probably no more than five feet, four or five inches tall, and weighing about 125 pounds—and well past his prime.”
Kerry Trask also reports:
“As an unyielding traditionalist, he honored the old customs and ways, never wearing white people’s clothing or tasting alcohol in any form, and in upholding the ancient virtues he often engaged in long and punishing periods of fasting and self-purification and experienced powerful dreams believed to contain messages from the supernatural forces that governed the world.”
In his biographical sketch of Black Hawk in the Encyclopedia of North American Indians, Roger Nichols writes:
“During his adult life Black Hawk watched with growing impatience and anger as the Sauks had their economy weakened, their mobility limited, and their lands taken by the advancing United States. In the face of these fundamental shifts he spoke for Sauk traditions; he opposed the pioneers and rejected their claims to tribal lands.”
With regard to Sauk view of land, Black Hawk said:
“My reason teaches me that land cannot be sold. The Great Spirit gave it to his children to live upon, and cultivate, as far as is necessary for their subsistence; and so long as they occupy it, they have the right to the soil -- but if they voluntarily leave it, then other people have a right to settle upon it. Nothing can be sold, but such things as can be carried away.”
Background: American Aggression and Greed
In 1804, a delegation of minor Sauk chiefs—Layowvois, Pashipaho (the Stabber), Quashquame (Jumping Fish), Outchequaha (Sun Fish), and Hashequarhiqua (the Bear)—had traveled to St. Louis because a Sauk warrior was being held in jail for murder. The purpose of the visit was to “cover the dead” and secure the release of the warrior. Traditional Indian justice did not seek punishment of the murderer, but instead provided compensation to the victim’s family. However, William Henry Harrison kept the chiefs drunk for four days during which time they signed a treaty in which they gave up their lands east of the Mississippi in exchange for a few presents. This fraudulent treaty—a treaty which the Sauks refused to acknowledge—formed the basis of the American claim to Sauk lands. Roger Nichols writes:
“For nearly three decades, that agreement brought continuing friction and misunderstanding between the tribe and the United States. It was a direct cause of the Black Hawk War.”
In 1828, the Indian agent told the Sauk that their village of Saukenuk had been sold and that it was time for them to move west of the Mississippi River. Mess-con-de-bay (Red Head) was adamant that the Sauk did not want to leave the bones of their ancestors. Mess-con-de-bay, a chief and a man of considerable standing, was simply dismissed by the agent as a “vile unprincipled fellow” and as a “poor trifling, mean, insignificant old man”.
In Illinois, both the Secretary of War and the state governor called for the removal of all Indians from the state. American squatters then took over a Sauk village while the Sauk were on their winter hunt. The American squatters had been told that the Sauks were not going to return to the village. The settlers claimed the Sauk farming fields and moved into the Sauk houses in the village.
Later that winter, Sauk warrior Black Hawk, concerned about rumors that the Americans had occupied their village, traveled alone through the cold, snow-filled countryside, to see for himself. He found an American family occupying his own lodge. Through an interpreter he told them to leave and not to trouble Sauk lands. The family ignored the demand.
By spring, squatters who had moved into the Sauk village turned their cattle loose into the Sauk cornfields. Black Hawk talked with the American Indian agent and was told that the Sauk should give up all notions of ever returning to Saukenuk again. The agent recommended that the Sauk establish a new village west of the Mississippi.
Disturbed by the agent’s advice, Black Hawk went to talk with Wabokieshiek, the Winnebago prophet. Wabokieshiek, who was in his mid-forties, presided over a village that was generally described as a mixture of many nations. He told Black Hawk that the Sauk should return to their village and that there should be no trouble between the Indians and the American settlers.
Sauk leader Keokuk then attempted to persuade the Sauk at Saukenuk to join the new Sauk community on the Iowa River. Black Hawk looked upon Keokuk as a traitor to his own people and refused the invitation. Black Hawk and his people attempted to live in their traditional village in a peaceful manner. In his book Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, Carl Waldman reports:
“Despite some quarreling, the Indians and the whites survived a planting season together. And Black Hawk vowed to return again the following spring.”
In 1830, the Indian agent for the Sauk expressed the hope that the government would provide justice for the Sauk and prevent squatters from taking over their land. The government, however, put the Sauk homelands in Illinois up for sale. When the Sauk returned from their winter hunt, they found settlers with legal titles plowing up the graves of Sauk ancestors.
In 1831, Black Hawk’s Sauk returned to their village of Saukenuk following their winter hunt. The Sauk numbered 1,200 to 1,600 people with an estimated 300 to 400 warriors. In previous years, the Sauk had returned to their village after the winter hunt in a peaceful manner. In spite of this peaceful past, the Americans responded by calling up a force of 700 militia volunteers to protect the citizens of the state from the Sauk invasion. The American volunteers included Abraham Lincoln, Zacharry Taylor, and Jefferson Davis.
Once again, Black Hawk consulted with Wabokieshiek, also known as the Winnebago prophet. Historian Kerry Trask reports:
“All Black Hawk and his followers needed to do, the Prophet advised him, was to stay calm and peaceful, remaining where they were and offering no resistance to the soldiers, who, in the end, would not force them to abandon their land if they did not put up a fight.”
The Sauk met in council with the Americans. Before General Gaines could make his opening remarks, Kinnekonnesaut jumped to his feet and spoke. Historian Kerry Trask reports:
“Gaines became visibly irritated and made a clumsy, unconvincing response, and then proceeded to read his written address, appearing to the Sauk unwilling, or perhaps even unable, to speak to them man-to-man from the heart.”
Keokuk complained to the Americans that the Sioux make life difficult and dangerous for them west of the Mississippi. He also pointed out that it was too late in the season to plant crops. He suggested that the Americans allow Black Hawk’s people to remain in the village so that they could harvest the corn which they had planted.
When Black Hawk addressed the council, General Gaines demanded:
“Who is the Black Hawk that he should assume the right of dictating to his tribe? …I know him not—he is not a chief—who is he?”
Black Hawk told the general that the women owned the fields, not the men. Then a woman selected by the other women addressed the Americans. According to Kerry Trask:
“In her short speech she declared the land—especially the cornfields and gardens—actually belonged to the women rather than the whole tribe, and let it be known that the women had never sold any of the land nor consented to the transfer of it to the United States.”
Gaines dismissed her comments and said that the President did not send him to make treaties with women nor to hold council with them.
The general ordered the Sauk to move within three days. He did, however, agree to provide them with corn to replace the corn which they would be unable to harvest. Twenty-eight chiefs and warriors signed the Articles of Agreement dictated by General Haines. The Sauk were to cross the Mississippi and never return to Saukenuk.
In order to avoid any confrontation with the state militia, Black Hawk left the state, leading some of his people to Iowa. Here they found little food, and starvation began.
As soon as Black Hawk left, the American militia moved into their old village of Saukenuk and burned many of the lodges. The volunteer soldiers also vandalized the Sauk cemetery.
Black Hawk led about 400 Sauk warriors and their families back into Illinois in 1832. Their goal was to reclaim their traditional village of Saukenuk. The result of this move was a series of conflicts known as the Black Hawk War. The initial response by the Governor of Illinois was to mobilize the state militia, and President Jackson was determined to crush Black Hawk. Indian agent William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame) writes of the Sauk:
“…a War of Extermination should be waged against them. The honor and respectability of the Government requires this: -- the peace and quiet of the frontier, the lives and safety of its inhabitants demand it.”
A force of 275 American volunteers overtook Black Hawk who had only 40 warriors with him. Facing odds that seemed to spell disaster, Black Hawk sadly sent out a delegation to discuss surrender. Even though the Sauk delegation was carrying a flag of truce, the Americans opened fire. In their chapter in North American Indian Wars, Robert Utley and Wilcomb Washburn describe the Sauk response:
“Black Hawk decided that, if he had to die, he would die fighting. Marshaling his tiny force, he led what he was sure was a suicidal attack against the volunteers. As he ran shouting toward certain death, however, the volunteers broke and ran.”
In memory of the American commander, the battle became known as Stillman’s Run.
Following their victory at Stillman’s Run, Black Hawk led his warriors through the countryside, burning farmsteads and taking scalps. In Illinois, they attacked the American fort on the Apple River. Following this they battled a militia force at Kellogg’s Grove, killing five Americans.
At the oxbow lake of the Pecantonic in present-day Wisconsin, Black Hawk’s warriors battled American militia troops. The eleven Indians in the war party were defeated in a matter of minutes. Historian Kerry Trask reports:
“While actually only of minor military importance, the Battle of Pecatonica was nevertheless an event of very considerable psychological and symbolic consequence.”
The battle was important because it showed the Americans that the Indians could be beaten.
At Wisconsin Heights the Americans again engaged the Indians in battle. The Americans estimated that they killed 40-68 Indians, though Black Hawk later claimed that he lost only six warriors. Unknown to the Americans, some Kickapoos had joined the fight and nearly all of their warriors were killed at Wisconsin Heights.
At the confluence of the Bad Axe and Mississippi Rivers, the Sauks sought to cross the river by building rafts. However, the steamboat Warrior arrived carrying American troops. According to Robert Utley and Wilcomb Washburn:
“The Indians tried to surrender, but the troops, inflamed by weeks of panic, set upon them clubbing, stabbing, and shooting.”
The Warrior withdrew after two hours, and American troops arrived by land to launch a second attack. At the Battle of Bad Axe the Sauks were finally defeated. At this battle, more than 1,300 Americans attacked the Sauk.
Historian Kerry Trask reports:
“Just how many Indians actually died in the massacre will never be known, but what was clearly a bloodbath for them resulted in an extremely low casualty count for the Americans.”
About 200 Sauk escaped from the massacre at Bad Axe by making their way across the Mississippi River where they were attacked by a Sioux war party.
Black Hawk, Wabokieshiek, Chakeepashipaho, Little Stabbing Chief, and about 25 others slipped away from the band before the beginning of the massacre. They made their way through Winnebago country and established a clandestine camp on Day-nik (Little Lake) near present-day Tomah, Wisconsin. They were discovered by the Winnebago traveler Hishoog-ka who then notified his village chief, Karayjasaip-ka, of the band’s presence. The Winnebago sent a delegation which included Chasjaka, who was Wabokieshiek’ brother, to persuade Black Hawk to end his struggle and turn himself in to the Americans. Historian Kerry Trask reports:
“When Black Hawk and the Prophet presented themselves at the Indian agent’s house an hour before noon, on Monday, August 27, 1832, it was as if they had materialized out of nowhere.”
Black Hawk gave his medicine bag to Karayjasaip-ka. His medicine bag had been passed down from Muk-a-ta-quet, his great-great-grandfather, to Na-na-ma-kee, his great-grandfather. According to Kerry Trask:
“That medicine bag was for Black Hawk a magical object containing or symbolizing the very essence of Sauk identity—the very ‘soul’ of the nation, as he put it—and upon the death of his own father it was passed on to him.”
Following his surrender at Prairie du Chien, Black Hawk, the Winnebago prophet Wabokieshiek, Sauk chief Neapope, and several others were sent to Washington, D.C. This journey would greatly enhance Black Hawk’s fame and reputation.
They had a brief meeting with President Andrew Jackson. While Black Hawk attempted to explain to the President why he had gone to war—saying that he had been driven to war by the injustices against his people—Jackson was disinterested.
The party was then sent to Fort Monroe in Virginia where they were to be imprisoned. While at Fort Monroe, there was a procession of well-known artists who painted their portraits.
After only four weeks at Fort Monroe, it was decided to release the prisoners, but only after they had been taken on a tour of the United States to impress them with the immense size and power of the country. Throughout the tour of the eastern cities, the group was met by large crowds and were treated as celebrities.
In 1833, Black Hawk told his life story to government interpreter Antoine LeClaire who published it as Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, or Black Hawk. The book became a best seller and went through five editions during the first year.
Reflections on the Black Hawk War
In his Encyclopedia of American Indian Wars, 1492-1890, Jerry Keenan writes:
“The Black Hawk War was brief, as wars go, lasting only 15 weeks. However, it was an especially costly war for the Indians, who suffered 400 to 500 casualties. On the other side, some 70 soldiers and civilians were killed.”
Carl Waldman writes:
“The Black Hawk War was the last of the wars for the Old Northwest, and it is a powerful story, symbolizing the end of the Prairie Algonquian way of life. The central issue, as with the majority of Indian wars, was land.”
Editor Donald Jackson, in his introduction to Black Hawk: An Autobiography, calls the Black Hawk War “barely a war” and points out that:
“…the invading force was not a band of marauding redskins on the warpath, but a migration which included Indian women and children.”
Regarding the Black Hawk War Landon Jones, in his book William Clark and the Shaping of the West, writes:
“It had been an unnecessary war, brought on by a stubborn Indian warrior, a belligerent Illinois governor, and incompetent militia officers.”
Historian Kerry Trask writes:
“All along the trek, from first crossing the Mississippi, Black Hawk had often seemed oddly inconsistent in his actions and strategies. On some occasions he was brilliantly clever and very much in charge of the situation, while on others he seemed indecisive, even bumbling and dumbfounded, and naively credulous about advice offered by the likes of Wabokieshiek and Neapope.”
More American Indian histories
Indians 201: The 1887 Crow uprising
Indians 101: The United States invades Mexico to destroy a Kickapoo village
Indians 201: The Kickapoo War against Texas
Indians 201: The 1827 Winnebago Uprising
Indians 101: The 1856 battle at the Cascades, Oregon
Indians 101: The Tlingit Rebellion of 1802-1806
Indians 101: Utah's Walker War
Indians 201: Utah's Black Hawk War
Note: Indians 201 is a revision/expansion of an earlier essay